Gifts in wills

Specific gifts

A specific gift is a gift of a particular item or amount of money that you identify in your will. For example, £10,000 or ‘my car’. A large number of different assets can be given away through specific gifts, including:

  • a fixed sum of money;
  • a percentage of the value of your total estate;
  • property;
  • shares or investments; 
  • the balance of bank or building society accounts; or
  • any other valuable personal belongings or assets.

You can also use your will to make a gift of something which may not be especially valuable in itself, but has a sentimental importance. Particular items of jewellery, for example, such as wedding or engagement rings, are often identified in a will.

It is important that you identify the gift as precisely as possible. For example, with a property you should list the full address rather than referring to ‘my house’, and for jewellery you should make sure it is identified precisely enough that it can’t be mistaken for any other piece. Exact identification is important not only so that your executors understand just what you intend, but also to prevent any potential challenges. If the wording of the gift is ambiguous (e.g. making a gift of ‘my diamond necklace’ when you have more than one), the gift may be declared invalid. If this happens, the item you were attempting to give will become part of your residuary estate.

Similarly, it needs to be clear who the gift is going to be given to. Generally, specific gifts are given to a specific person, a group of people, or a charity. For more information, please see our page Beneficiaries - who can benefit from your will?

It is possible to make a gift of money index-linked. This means that it will change between when your will is written and when you die by the same amount as the general level of prices. For example, if you had left an index-linked gift of £1,000 in a will written in 2000, it would be worth well over £1,600 today. However, it's important to remember that if the level of prices increases dramatically by the time you die, any index-linked gift could significantly reduce the amount that is left to distribute to the principal beneficiaries of your estate.

What if there isn’t enough in my estate to pay the legacies?

If your estate doesn’t include enough money to pay all of the gifts listed in your will, your beneficiaries instead share your estate in proportion to their original share. For example, if your will states that someone should get £50,000 of an estate that was worth £100,000, but is now worth only £50,000, they instead receive £25,000. This is known as abatement. Specific legacies are always paid before the residuary estate is distributed, which means that if there is not enough to pay the specific legacies in full, there will be no residuary estate.

Life interests

While you may wish to give a gift outright to someone, it is also possible to put conditions on the gift, or to limit its duration. The most common form of limitation on a gift is a life interest.

A life interest is a form of trust (see our Life interest trust page for more information) that allows one person to benefit from an asset for the duration of their life, with the asset going to someone else upon their death. For example, you could leave a life interest in your house to your partner, with the house passing to your children when your partner dies. This means that your partner would have the right to enjoy rent from the property, or to live in the house, or perhaps to use the proceeds of selling the house to purchase a new one. But they could not pass it on in their own will, and any property that they had purchased with the proceeds would revert to your children afterwards.

Release of debt

Any debts other people owe you at the time of your death are added to the total value of your estate. During probate (see our pages on Probate for more information), all of this money will be collected, and eventually passed on along with the rest of your assets. However, it is possible to forgive a debt in your will. This works in the same way as a specific gift, but instead of giving money, your will states that you wish to cancel a debt that someone owes you.

If you do decide to forgive any debts, that is the same as giving a specific gift of the value of the debt. This means that it will still need to be included in your estate for the purposes of inheritance tax.

If you owe any debts yourself, they will be paid from your estate after any funeral expenses have been paid. Your debts are paid before any other assets are distributed.

Non-specific gifts

It is possible to give a group of objects as a gift in your will, e.g. ‘all of my books’. As with specific gifts, non-specific gifts must be sufficiently precise that it is clear what the gift includes and who it is going to.

If you have made a non-specific gift, you can remove items from the gift by specifically giving them to someone else. For example, if you make a gift of ‘all my household possessions’ but have also made a gift of ‘my piano’ to someone else, ‘all my household possessions’ will mean everything except the piano.

Implied gifts

Alongside the explicit gifts that you include in your will (specific gifts, non-specific gifts, and gifts of your residuary estate), in some circumstances the court can also find implied gifts in your will. This occurs when the context of the will suggests that you intended to give a gift, but failed to make the gift explicit.

Historically, the most common form of implied gift was where a property was given to a child ‘after the death of their mother’. While this doesn’t explicitly say that the mother should be given the property, it clearly implies that she should have it until her death. However, even if the court has been willing to find implied gifts in this way, it is highly recommended that you set out explicitly anyone you intend to benefit from your estate.

Another form of implied gift can be sharing gifts between new additions to a group. For example, if your will includes the phrase ‘to my grandchildren’ a gift may be implied to include any children born after your death. In order to decide whether to imply a gift, the court will try to decide the meaning you intended the words to have, which may be difficult or complicated. If you intend to do something along these lines, e.g. allow any future grandchildren to benefit from your will, the most effective method is to establish a trust. For more information on this point, please see our pages on Will trusts.

A further option is implying a gift by listing the members of a group who are not to inherit. For example, if a will included the phrase ‘of my grandchildren, Michael and James are not to inherit my house’ it might imply that the house should be shared between the other grandchildren. However, once again it is highly recommended that you instead explicitly list everyone you want to inherit, rather than just implying gifts.